The woman from the Post Office was not okay. “Lady, there’s a big box of bees in my trunk and I ain’t touching them again!” My wife, Meghan, was calm. She had never handled a three pound package of bees either but she went into the workshop for a pair of gloves and grabbed the box.
The woman warned Meghan, “See, one of ‘em got out!” And there was indeed a single bee on the outside of the screened box. I now wonder how long ago she jumped along for the ride; had she stowed away all the way back in Kentucky?
We started with bees in 2008 the way most beekeepers begin, by ordering Package Bees. I had spent the previous winter learning all about keeping bees, ordering, and assembling the parts of a hive. Everything I had read told me it was better to start with a nucleus colony, or a hive split from an established beekeeper (who would ideally be a mentor) but I had waited too long. There were no nucs available when I finally got around to trying to order one.
Now that I have had a few years to learn about why, I don’t generally recommend Package Bees. Bees that arrive through the mail come from southern states and therefore contain southern raised queens. They are not necessarily going to be hardy enough for northern winters and they carry a risk (although very small) of carrying Africanized genetic material. Also, the bees in a package are dumped from a big hopper from scores of different colonies, with a queen unknown to them. Once in a hive they get the job done, and over time the hive will all be the offspring of the queen, but it starts the hive off in the spring at a disadvantage. And all those bees from the hopper have just spent the previous February traveling across the country to pollinate California’s almond crop. In addition to being incredibly stressful for bees, it throws them into an orgy of pollinators from a million other hives who might carry any of the diseases that are putting bees at risk. Most packages are perfectly healthy and most perform just fine. I’ll admit my objection to bringing in packages now is partly selfish: I know my own beehives are healthy but if a neighbor brings in bees that have been working at Disease Central it creates a known unknown to add to my list of worries.
I ordered the bees that winter from Walter Kelley Co. and wrote on the calendar the day in May when they would be shipped. The ship date was on a Saturday and I assumed mail from Kentucky would take a few days. So on Monday I called up the Post Office just like my beginner’s beekeeping book said I should. I got an answering machine, and left a message for them to call me when the bees arrived. Later that morning I saw our mail carrier and told him the same thing. He said, “No big deal. We deal with that sort of stuff all the time.” So I went on with my day and went out to run some errands. At the store my cell phone rang. It was Meghan who said simply, “Your bees arrived.”
The bees had showed up at the Post Office that morning and the office manager had been made very edgy by the constant buzz of a box of bees in her workplace. Somehow she got it in the trunk of her car and brought it to our house on her lunch hour. She was not taking any chances to find the box structurally sound and had figured, logically, if one bee could get out of the box they could all find their way out. Meghan put the box in the workshop and the woman went off to wind down on her lunch break. I’m guessing she went to the Griffin Club for a cocktail.
Maybe you’re wondering at this point: What’s the first thing you do when a box of bees arrives at your house? Well, the first thing you do is spray them with a little bit of warm sugar syrup. I’ll tell you what I did second though: I went to get my neighbor Caleb. It’s not every day you get to see a box with 12,000 bees in it.